Can the BRICS avoid the “Power South vs. Poor South” Dynamic?

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Bridging the gap between the Global North and Global South was one of the key ambitions when global leaders created the G20 in response to the global financial crisis of 1997-99. In the same way, supporters of the BRICS and IBSA groupings have often argued that such outfits would strengthen the voice of the developing world in global affairs.

Yet the past decade has also seen the emergence of a new division: That of the "Power South" against the "Poor South", as Amitav Acharya writes in his recent book. A country’s quest for status as an "emerging power", he argues, can undermine its regional engagement. There is always a temptation to "leapfrog" their unglamorous neighborhood in order to pursue the global glitz and prestige that BRICS and G20 membership brings.

Contrary to previous developing country clubs like the Bandung Conference and its offshoot, the Non-Aligned Movement, which were broad and inclusive, the new outfits are exclusive and plagued by questions about their legitimacy and capacity to represent the developing world. Nations represented at Bandung, including Nehru's India, Mao's China, and Nasser's Egypt, had few illusions about achieving global power status, whether individually or collectively. The BRICS, on the contrary, harbor an individual aspiration to project power globally. The more powerful they become, the more pressing are worries in smaller developing countries. Can the BRICS or the G20 still represent their interests? Or have countries like Brazil, India and China long joined a global oligarchy that knows little about the challenges small and poor countries face?

At the same time, none of the BRICS countries enjoy broad regional support - quite to the contrary, in almost all cases, the BRICS countries' immediate neighbors are most skeptical of the emerging powers' leadership ambitions. Paradoxically, the BRICS' leadership ambitions are more recognized and even openly demanded on a global scale than regionally. The key challenge, then, of each BRICS country is how to show that their individual rise is good for their neighborhood, too.

Finally, the issue raises an important question several emerging powers have to face: How important is regional support to sustain a credible leadership ambition on a global scale? Put differently, is it necessary to be recognized as a regional leader before projecting influence globally?

These are important questions as Brazil prepares the BRICS-South America Summit in Brasília, which will take place shortly after the 6th BRICS Summit in Fortaleza. The decision to invite the continent's leaders is a shrewd one; yet Brazil should use this golden opportunity to articulate a clearer regional vision and answer pressing questions: What should UNASUR look like ten years from now? How does it think about South America's place in a global economy increasingly divided by big trade blocs? What should be the future of the South American Defense Council? And how should the region think about and respond to China's growing presence?

Organizing the summit marathon in the second half of July is a formidable logistical and diplomatic challenge. Yet if Dilma Rousseff is able to articulate a clear vision to the many participants, it will be a considerable success for a President who is generally thought to have neglected foreign policy since taking office in January 2011.

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Photo credit: Blog do Planalto